Sunday, January 15, 2023: On our way into San José, the capital and largest city in Costa Rica, we stopped at Alamo Car Rental, quite a distance from Juan Santamaría International Airport, where we returned our rental car and took an Uber to our hotel, Hotel Santo Tomas. We checked into the well-located hotel and promptly went out to explore San José.
We stopped briefly in a park where I tried on my angel wings. We wandered down a crowded pedestrian shopping street, Avenida Central, where Mike checked out bathing suits and I checked out some sandals. We didn’t however make any purchases – yet.
Pre-Columbian Gold Museum (Museo del Oro Precolombino)
We visited the Pre-Columbian Gold Museum (Museo del Oro Precolombino), housed in a subterranean building underneath the Plaza de la Cultura. Built between 1977-1982, it is owned and curated by the Banco Central de Costa Rica.
The impressive modern museum has an archeological collection of almost 4,000 Pre-Columbian artifacts, made up of thousands of gold objects and ceramic pieces, 46 stone objects, 4 jade and 9 glass or bead objects. The gold collection dates from 300-400 BC to 1550 AD.
From 2000-300 BC, early farmers and agriculture emerged and the first ceramic objects were produced. In 800 AD in southeast Costa Rica, complex societies developed, carrying out diverse productive activities and establishing politico-religious centers. These societies lived in large settlements arrayed along mountain ridges, alluvial plains and coastal areas, taking advantage of the fertile soil of the alluvial plains and the mineral, vegetable and animal wealth of the forests, rivers and coasts.
In Costa Rican history, gold was considered a symbol of authority and the items testify to the craftsmanship of the Pre-Columbian period. Gold objects were means to communicate specific ideas, especially in shamanistic rituals. Masculine figures with animal masks symbolize shamans whose superhuman qualities were depicted in animal form and whose abilities and behavior were considered powerful and dangerous.
Over 2.5 million years ago, several species of animals known as megafauna inhabited the American continent. These species became extinct at the end of the Ice Age 11,700 years ago. Costa Rica was home to species from both North and South America that used these lands as transit areas.
The museum’s collection celebrates the rich array of wildlife found in the country with animal figurines (frogs, eagles, jaguars and other felines, alligators, birds, aquatic animals, deer, and other mammals), amulets, and earrings. I loved the different animal shapes that inspired both gold pieces and ceramics. We found a turkey-shaped pot and an armadillo-shaped pot. Human figures were among the most commonly depicted in gold objects.
Mythology depicts felines as man-hunters and warriors, always linked to natural elements, such as water, stone and fire. Most common representations include jaguars, tigers, margays, pumas, ocelots, and jaguarundis.
Frogs and toads are known in indigenous mythology as assistant undertakers, protectors of the remains of the dead, and chanters that predict tempests and weather changes. They are also associated with rituals of shamanic transformation and fertility.
Birds are one of the most commonly represented animals in pre-Columbian metalwork. Generally associated with the journey of the souls of the deceased to the underworld. Shamans were said to transform into birds to perform the “shamanic flight.”
Alligators are a clan symbol for power and protection and served as guides for souls to reach the underworld; they are also presented as enemies to humans and associated with water, oceans and rivers.
Musicians, chanters and dancers played an important role in the preservation of pre-Columbian culture. Among pieces found as funerary objects are stylized musicians and chanters which are portrayed playing instruments and dancing. Sometimes they’re depicted holding two different instruments, attesting to their skill and musical ability.
Undertakers were important in Pre-Columbian society. Death was considered part of the cycle of life and rituals and beliefs revolved around it. There were two types of burials. In the primary type, the body was deposited directly into a tomb. In the secondary type, bones were de-fleshed and bundled before being buried. The museum contains a replica of a Pre-Columbian grave containing 88 gold objects; this was unearthed on a banana plantation in southeastern Costa Rica in the 1950s.
Warriors were said to have supernatural powers and could acquire powers from those they killed. They hung discs or patens on their chests which were used to intimidate the opposing side in moments of conflict. One diorama showcases El Guerrero, a life-sized gold warrior figure adorned with gold ornaments in a glass case.
Healers were specialists in charge of healing rituals: chanting sessions using various objects and medicinal plants.
Shamans were very important and acted as political, economic and spiritual leaders. Antonio Saldaña, the last shaman performing political duties among the Bribri, was murdered in 1910. He belonged to the SaLwak clan, from which the highest ranking chiefs could emerge.
The traditional Talamanca house (wood structures covered in palm tree leaves) symbolized the Bribri and Cabécar world view: They saw the universe as cone-shaped houses divided in strata, home to beings of different kinds.
The Matrilineal Clan System, a line of descent transmitted by females, is still used among Bribri and Cabécar indigenous groups of Costa Rica. Both women and men played important roles in life and in ritual practices. From 16th century sources, women were described as caciques (local political bosses), healers and warriors.
It was enlightening to study the detailed scale model of a Pre-Columbian village.
A few modern pieces topped off the historical exhibits in the museum.
Teatro Nacional de Costa Rica
After visiting the Gold Museum, we walked down Avenida Central to the National Theatre and looked around inside the lobby.
The 1,140-seat Teatro Nacional de Costa Rica is the nation’s national theater, located in the central section of San José. Construction began in 1891, and it opened to the public on 21 October 1897 with a performance of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust. The National Theatre stood as a cultural asset of the country during a time when coffee exports were a source of its success. Artistic criteria for performances are very high.
The building is considered the finest historic building in the capital, and it is known for its exquisite interior and its lavish furnishings.
We then walked by the Metropolitan Cathedral, which sits overlooking Parque Central. We tried to go inside, but since it was Sunday, one of their seven masses was in session and tourists weren’t allowed inside.
Catedral Metropolitana was originally built in 1802 but was destroyed by an earthquake. The Cathedral was rebuilt in the 1870s after the earthquake destroyed the smaller church on the site. It was designed by a Spanish architect in a style considered “neo-classical.” The front of the building features a façade with three towers, a clock tower in the center and two bell towers.
Returning to the hotel, we enjoyed a drink outside on palm-covered cushions and then we moseyed down the street to Café Rojo. What an adorable cafe with a Vietnamese twist. We were serenaded by “No Dejes Que…” by Caifanes while eating a broccoli soup, spring rolls with smoked trout, and a Vietnamese bowl with rice noodles, lettuce, carrot, cucumber, radishes, green onion, spearmint, cilantro, and peanuts, and topped with smoked trout. We tried several sauce options, all delicious.
A walkabout in San José
Monday, January 16: We started our day by having breakfast in the poolside dining area, and then we were off to explore San José on our last day in Costa Rica.
We walked past the cute green Alliance Française building where French classes are held. We saw El Edificio Metálico (The Metallic Building), which houses a school and is located next to Parque Morazon. The metallic pieces were forged in Belgium in 1892; they were transported to and assembled in San José in 1896. A unique building for Costa Rica, it is said to have been inspired by the Eiffel Tower. It is a neoclassical style designed by French architect Charles Thiro. Nowadays, it is a primary school called Buenaventura Corrales and Julia Lang School.
We strolled by La Casa Amarilla (The Yellow House), a fine example of Spanish colonial architecture: a neo-colonial architectural style with neo-Baroque decor. It was declared a national monument in 1976 and shows the historical and architectural heritage of Costa Rica.
The building, initially the Central American Court of Justice, was built with funds donated by Andrew Carnegie in 1910. A Ceiba tree in front was planted by John F. Kennedy during his 1963 visit to Costa Rica. On the property’s northeast corner garden is a graffiti-covered slab of the Berlin Wall.
Some well-dressed official-looking people were walking out. It currently houses the Foreign Affairs Ministry and is closed to the public.
We wandered through a pretty neighborhood with elegant gated homes and tropical trees.
We came upon a cute little hostel/café called Selina, where we stopped for a fruit juice smoothie. An old rusted Volkswagen served as the receptionist desk and a spiral staircase led upstairs to an outdoor yoga studio. An old gnarly and knotted tree stood outside in the road adjacent to the sidewalk.
We strolled by the Plaza de La Libertad Electoral 1996. A block-like red sculpture punctuated the park adjacent to it. We admired the Biblioteca Nacional Miguel Obregon. We also stumbled across a statue that represents the victory of the Central American nations over the foreign invaders known as “filibusters of William Walker.”
Down a pedestrian walkway, we found Asamblea Legislativa, inaugurated in October 2020 for sessions of the legislative body. Construction started March 7, 2018 and it has 18 floors and a central atrium.
Further along the walkway, El Castillo Azul (Blue Castle) is recognized as a national monument; its architectural structure combines styles as different as the neocolonial or the Mediterranean. Roles in history were the Presidential House of dictator Federico Alberto Tinoco and Headquarters of the American Embassy.
We saw the Museo Nacional de Costa Rica housed in the former Bellavista army barracks, but sadly it was closed on Mondays. It apparently has 20,000 specimens in its natural history collection and more than 30,000 objects in anthropology and archeological collections. The Costa Rican historical exhibition has a 33,000+ piece furniture collection.
In front of the museum stands a statue of José Figueres Ferer (Don Pepe), 1906-1990. He served as president of Costa Rica on three occasions: 1948-1949; 1953-1958; and 1970-1974. During his first term in office, he abolished the country’s army, nationalized its banking sector and granted women and Afro-Costa Ricans the right to vote. He also granted access to Costa Rican nationality to people of African descent.
Museo del Jade y de la Cultura Precolombina
At 11:00, we went to the Museo del Jade y de la Cultura Precolombina. The museum was originally founded in 1977 by Marco Fidel Castro Tristan. The new modern building, quite impressive, opened in 2014. The building is made to resemble a block of raw jade stone.
Jade refers to two different minerals, jadeite and nephrite. Three major cultures stand out for the production of jade in the Americas: the Olmec, the Maya and pre-Columbian Costa Rican groups. In Costa Rica, the main workshops that produced jade pieces were in Guanacaste (Nicoya and Bagaces) as well as on the Central Caribbean plains.
Over 7,000 items are on display here, most dated between 500 BC and 300 BC, the period during which jade trade was at its peak.
The Day Exhibit explored flora and fauna and the daily life of Pre-Columbian societies in Costa Rica.
Some designs in jade objects may represent clans or family groups. They could have been used by chiefs, usually elderly men and women, who were responsible for passing knowledge to new generations.
Jade pieces were often placed as a funeral offering, indicating the position or rank of the deceased within their social group. Most of the jade pieces are images of animals and depictions of societal organization. Jade artwork and jewelry were used for ornamentation and often emphasized religious or shamanic rituals.
Large stone spheres in the museum are characterized by a perfection in their roundness. They’re made with different types of rock of various sizes. They were symbolic power objects within the social groups that carved them and used them from 500 A.C. to 1500 D.C. We also found some of these large spheres in front of the Asamblea Legislativa.
The Jade Museum had a huge exhibit focused on Shamanic Rituals. Jade objects display birds, jaguars, and other animals, as well as individuals whose ritually positioned hands depict the shaman during his transformation and “magical journey,” people in need of healing or the deceased awaiting purification.
The rituals in which shamans participated might include long fasts and diets, baths, the use of spatulas to induce vomiting, sharp tips for bloodletting or self-sacrifice, and jade containers to carry special ointments.
Shamans performed fire-based rituals using leaves from certain plants and tobacco smoke, which they blew over the patient’s body to heal him or her. Shamans communicated with the spirit through the magical stones they wore and others that they placed on the sick person’s body.
The Shaman received his or her great power from the spirits that populated the space in the form of animals, evoking them by means of a “magical journey” enabled through a state of trance, chanting and sometimes by using hallucinogenic substances.
Polished stones such as jade had magical qualities and were used by Shamans to communicate in a secret language with the spirit of the sick person during healing practices, in shamanic initiation rituals and purification ceremonies, and to predict important events for members of the community.
The Night Exhibit covered the underworld, war and burial ceremonies. Another section of the museum focused on music, ancestors and sex.
In the museum, we also found the colorful magic realism of Isidro Con Wong, a Costa Rican of Chinese origin who has been inspired by the landscapes of his beloved Puntarenas and the Nicoya Peninsula.
I found myself utterly entranced by the work of Ana Wien.
Another walkabout in San José
We stopped for a delicious lunch at Café Otoya Bistro. I had a Pink Delicious: a pan ciabatta, smoked salmon, lettuce, pepper cheese, radishes and a delicious sauce accompanied by roasted potatoes. Mike had a Nuestro Cubano. I had Limonada pink and Mike Limonada con hierba buena.
We returned to our hotel after lunch and had a drink and soaked in the hotel’s hot tub in the courtyard.
Later, we walked down Avenida Central, the pedestrian zone lined with clothing and department stores. We found “La Matrona” (The Matron), a sculpture by Manuel Vargas. His women are gigantic, a tribute to women, especially the mothers, of Costa Rica.
In front of the Central Bank of Costa Rica, we encountered the sculpture “Monument Los Presentes” (Monument to Those Present) dating from 1989; it honors the traditional farmers of the Central Valley. They are nine life-size bronze figures by Costa Rican sculptor Fernando Calvo representing the Costa Rican peasant. The work personifies those in danger of disappearing due to modernization. Paradoxically, they’re represented as firm, immutable, and in silent rebellion against change.
We then wandered through El Mercado Central with its indoor vendors and narrow walkways. It is a food and craft market selling everything imaginable: coffee beans, fresh meat and fish, sugary treats, flowers, textiles, and medicinal plants. Souvenir stalls sell wood items, pottery, jewelry and trinkets.
We then walked to Iglesia de la Merced, a Catholic temple with neo-Gothic architecture dedicated to the Virgen de las Mercedes. The main tower has a German Gothic style. It was built in 1894 by engineer Lesmes Jiménez Bonnefil and architect Jaime Carrariza and declared part of the historical and architectural heritage of Costa Rica in 1996.
Finally we stopped again at Catedral Metropolitana; this time we were allowed to enter as no masses were in session as they were on Sunday. It was re-erected in 1871, decades after its initial construction and following an earthquake. The stone white box cathedral resembles a courthouse, with a wide concrete staircase and eight tall columns. Inside are dark wood pews, gold candelabras, decorative floor tiles and stained glass windows.
In front of the cathedral is Parque Central, more of a plaza than a park. A life-size bronze statue of a street sweeper (El Barrendero) cleans up bronze litter. Armonía (Harmony) is a sculpture of three street musicians who silently serenade the milling crowds. In the center of the one-square-block park is an unsightly spider-like gazebo donated by one-time Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza.
As we walked back to our hotel on Avenida Central, we dipped into one of the shops we’d stopped in during our first afternoon. Mike bought some swim trunks and I bought a pair of sandals. In another shop I found some knit pants for summer that were quite a bargain.
Finally, we ate dinner, returning to our neighborhood Café Rojo. I enjoyed smoked trout with coconut milk and lime on “Bun” – Vietnamese bowl with rice noodles, lettuce, carrot, cucumber, radishes, green onion, spearmint, cilantro and peanuts. All accompanied by a glass of white wine.
Mike ate Eggplant on “Casado” – rice, lentils and green salad with coconut and sweet tamarind dressing. It was as delicious and pleasant as it was on our first night in town.
Here’s a screen shot of my Polarsteps at the end of our trip through Nicaragua & Costa Rica.
Tuesday, January 17: We woke up at 3:00 a.m., rolled out of bed, threw on our clothes and met the Uber driver outside the hotel in the dark at 3:20 a.m. It only took us about 20 minutes to get to Juan Santamaría International Airport where we checked our bags, went through security and ate our leftover sandwiches from lunch at Café Otoya yesterday. Our flight to Dallas, TX was 4 hours and 20 minutes. Luckily they had a good system at the airport for going through immigration and customs and rechecking our bags for our 12:23 flight to Dulles International in Washington. Luckily that flight was only 2 hours and 38 minutes, which was bearable, but it took forever to get our luggage at the baggage claim. Poor Alex, who was picking us up, had to wait outside the airport in the cell phone lot for some time.
We were exhausted from our three weeks of travel but we heated up some frozen kale and bean soup and watched a Ted Lasso episode with Alex before zonking out. 🙂